At least once a week, he makes his way to David Griffiths's office. He spreads his journals and papers on the work desk, jumping up and jotting equations on the dry-erase board--physics as performance. "If he's hit a snag, we go over that part," says Griffiths. "But basically I sit here and watch. I've learned a lot from him."
For Walborn, joy is in the process: "If I'm trying to do a calculation and I'm not getting it, I just like the fact that I'm sitting looking at this piece of paper, with my pencil in my hand, trying to figure it out, and looking at books and tables and using math computer programs," he says. "That is just fun."
Steve Walborn's father, Pat, attributes much of Steve's drive to his mother, Jane, who died during Steve's sophomore year at Reed. Jane battled breast cancer for 11 years; near the end of her life, the cancer spread to her bones. She would still play tennis, Pat says, serving full force even though that often meant she would crack a rib. Pat sees that same force in Steve.
Steve's adviser backs this up: "You never get shoddy work from Steve," says Griffiths, comparing Steve's work habits to those of a Ph.D. student. "If Steve turns something in, it will be perfect, or as close to perfect as he can make it."
Walborn's circuitous path to Reed College curved through two colleges and a stint as a sheet-metal worker. He grew up in Reading, Pennsylvania, and moved to Bellingham, Washington, for college and snowboarding. He returned home after two years to be near his mother. He attended Albright College for a while, then worked in sheet metal. During this time, Walborn lived on the farm of a friend who was a Reed student taking some time off. His friend encouraged him to come out to Oregon, so Walborn and several friends packed up and headed to Mt. Hood, where they lived and snowboarded for a season.
With the same group of friends, Walborn moved to Portland--into an apartment across the street from Reed (two of his friends were Reed students). He began hanging out on campus and decided he wanted to go back to school; the only place he could imagine himself was Reed. He told the admission office this, typing his application in the Reed computer lab.
During his first year at Reed, he discovered the Portland punk scene and decided he wanted to start a band. He did. In the do-it-yourself world of punk music, the band, which was named Slowsidedown, toured the Northwest on weekends and the nation in the summer, then put out two albums--one self-released and one through the Seattle label Excursion--and were featured on several punk compilations.
Reed proved too demanding of his time to continue Slowsidedown, but Walborn still draws from the experience, even in terms of presenting his thesis to the physics faculty. When he first started the band, Walborn was critical of his every performance.
"After you play a bunch of shows you just forget about the anxiety of performing and you shrug your shoulders and say, 'I felt okay about it, I did my best, next time maybe I'll do this, I won't do that, that's that.' That applies now to talking about my thesis in front of people."
We leave the dining hall, walking out into a sunny, cool, Portland afternoon. Steve is heading to his basement office, chatting about his project, when he spots a table of students in the courtyard. "Hey!" he yells over to them, and excuses himself. He jogs over, talks animatedly, then returns. Apologizing, he explains he had to cement plans for a snowboarding trip tomorrow.